Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Canada’s northernmost atmospheric lab defunded

What do you do when you don't like the results of science? When the science conflicts with your perceived view of the world? What do you do when you own a world class, furthest north, leading Arctic environmental research laboratory that is producing real data used throughout the world that conflicts with what you want to believe?

Well, in Canada, the answer is easy: get rid of the science.

This will be a real loss to a whole host of scientific fields that transcend the Arctic: environmental, atmospheric, climatology, etc.

A few million dollars effectively spent loses out to hundreds of millions of dollars of pure porkbarrel politics, to say nothing of hundreds of millions spent on government self-promotion and the billions squandered on fake lakes and G20 primping.

What I'm referring to is PEARL, a CANDAC facility for atmospheric research in Eureka, Ellesmere Island, a continuously operating research-level station with a large complement of instrumentation for measuring atmospheric properties from the ground to around 100km. The geographical location is: 80°N, 86°25'W, the most northerly atmospheric station of its kind.

From today's Toronto Globe and Mail, the following editorial:

Saving Canada’s Arctic atmospheric lab

On Sunday, for the first time in four months, the sun rose over Eureka on Ellesmere Island, 10 degrees from the North Pole. The sun's return brings rays that break up ozone, and the Arctic climate and atmosphere are changing every year.

But we are about to lose our main source of knowledge about these intricate, and life-altering, processes, because our northernmost environmental research laboratory, known as PEARL, is in jeopardy. If Canada is serious about scientific discovery, and its status as an Arctic nation, the lab must be saved.

No one questions the lab's merit. Its instruments have collected Arctic surface and atmospheric data used by the world's major research organizations, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Office. The lab houses Canada's northernmost high-speed Internet connection, allowing for rapid dissemination of results. Research done at the lab has already found, for instance, that water evaporation in the Arctic is far more complicated than had been thought. The lab is the only one of its kind in the high Arctic, and has produced 37 refereed publications and trained over 50 young scientists in 10 years.

PEARL is in trouble because one of its main sources of funding, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, has lost federal support and is slated to wind down this year. A few of its instruments could, in theory, be moved, but our scientific heritage would be lost. As with the demise of the long-form census, data will no longer be comparable over long time-periods, making the data already collected less valuable.

Atmospheric research is important for all of Canada, but northerners are particularly vulnerable. “It's in the Canadian High Arctic where the global warming process is proceeding most rapidly,” says Richard Peltier, professor of physics at the University of Toronto. In addition, pollution from the south (and from the North itself, as it industrializes) leads to ozone loss and threatens the North's more fragile ecosystems and populations.

“How else would we expect to learn about the Arctic, if we don't do it ourselves?” asks James Drummond, professor of physics at Dalhousie University and principal investigator at PEARL. It's a challenge that puts the question of Canadian sovereignty in high relief, and deserves a response from our elected officials.

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